Legal blame falls on more defendants in Maui lawsuits targeting HECO

The lawsuits keep coming against Hawaiian Electric’s companies over the Maui wildfires, but some say the legal landscape for HECO has actually improved over tim
Published: Oct. 6, 2023 at 6:05 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 6, 2023 at 6:13 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The lawsuits keep coming against Hawaiian Electric’s companies over the Maui wildfires, but some say the legal landscape for HECO has actually improved over time.

That’s good for the company because HECO will not get much protection from its insurance companies.

In response to questions from the Public Utilities Commission, Hawaiian Electric Industries made public its insurance policy, which only provides about $165 million in liability coverage.

The key to HECO’s liability is whether investigations and courts conclude HECO equipment or negligence caused the fire.

Video of a morning fire apparently caused by power lines provoked multiple lawsuits, despite strong denials by HECO and some evidence a second fire burned the town.

Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, which is a party in the PUC evaluation of HECOs grid strengthening plans said that key question is up in the air.

“At this point we have absolutely no idea what caused the second fire,” Curtis said.

Many of the more recent lawsuits — there were at least four more filed this week — are spreading the blame around.

Maui County for example, is accused of causing more misery with its fumbled emergency response and its failure to maintain its property and regulate landowners to manage theirs.

Maui attorney Lance Collins represents a number of Lahaina residents and, along with HEI companies, has included the state, the county and the landowners as defendants in his cases.

“There’s West Maui Land and other large landowners have put gates over many of these old government roads. And that blocked a number of pathways for individuals to be able to more easily evacuate,” Collins said.

If no clear cause is proven experts say many defendants would end up having to pay damages based on their level of responsibility in individual cases. If HECO and Maui County bare a big portion, that’s bad for the residents who weren’t victims of the fires.

“Maui residents are ratepayers and taxpayers so if the county is liable or if MECO is liable that both gets to most Maui residents but in different ways,” Curtis pointed out.

HECO remains the prime suspect though as shown in last week’s congressional hearing.

Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama pressed PUC chair Leo Asuncion about how the commission could punish HECO and was not satisfied by the indirect answer.

“I would like for the witness to provide to the committee in detail the enforcement measures that the commission can impose on a utility that doesn’t comply with regulations,” Palmer said.

The PUC could fine HECO if it didn’t meet the terms of PUC orders or decide that HECO can’t pass on repairs or legal costs to customers, but Curtis said the PUC chairman could not say that to Congress before hearing evidence, so it would not be a fair question.

“It would be like a judge issuing a decision before the case has been tried,” Curtis said.

If HECO is found liable for most of the potentially billions in damages, it may be too much for Maui ratepayers to handle. In that case the law does allow for ratepayers across the state to pay through their bills.